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Introducing Rajiv Shah
June 2, 2010
By Anne Richard
Recently, I accompanied IRC President George Rupp to a major policy address by Rajiv Shah, the new Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Created in 1961, USAID is the federal government agency that provides aid to developing countries. Unfortunately, over the years it has suffered from budget cuts, staff reductions and frequent changes in political direction, to the point where much of its work is contracted out to firms or carried out via grants to universities and non-profit aid agencies like the IRC.
Standing backstage before the speech, Shah appeared happy to have survived four months in office, during which he had played a leading role in the response to the Haiti earthquake and traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had just addressed a “town hall” meeting of USAID staff and surprised them with a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama. I got the impression that he saw this second, more public appearance of the day as relatively easy after juggling White House schedules, U.S. Secret Service requirements and the expectations of his own staff. The 37 year-old Shah worked for the Gates Foundation before becoming an Under Secretary and Chief Scientist at the US Department of Agriculture. He was selected for the top job at USAID after impressing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with his work on a Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative unveiled by the White House in 2009. This initiative would invest in agricultural development while continuing support for humanitarian food aid around the world. The needs of small scale farmers and agri-businesses and women are a special focus of the initiative. In introducing him, George Rupp called for re-establishing USAID as the world’s premier development organization. He spoke for all aid agencies when he said, “We know first- hand how important these programs are for saving lives and for putting people back on their feet so they can take care of themselves. That is why we so strongly support elevating U.S. development as an integral part of our government's interface with the world abroad. Development is critical if we're going to achieve our economic, our foreign policy, and our national security goals.”
As Shah affirmed in his own remarks, USAID is at a pivotal moment for change and reform if it is to truly grow stronger and more effective in leading U.S. development initiatives. “It’s pretty clear to me that our time to change is right now and that our time is short,” Shah said. “We now have a unique opportunity to make dramatic progress against development goals and help elevate living standards for billions of people around the world.” He reflected on the challenge of responding to the crisis in Haiti and was pleased to see that USAID “professionals at their best could be development entrepreneurs” by using ingenuity to cut through red tape and rush aid to those who needed it. He endorsed the Millennium Development Goals – the set of pledges international leaders adopted in 2000 to achieve sweeping changes from eradicating hunger to reducing child mortality and fighting disease. And he called for harnessing advances in science and technology to achieve global economic development. Shah also embraced what he called the “new development partners” and included on his list “grassroots leaders in our communities, the church groups that advocate for humanitarian relief, the baby boomers who forgo comfortable retirements to join the Peace Corps and get to work, and the college students….who over-subscribe every development course that gets offered” and even popular performers like Bono and Shakira. Shah is certainly right that bringing together businesses and charities, Republicans and Democrats, retired Admirals and college students will be the best way to build support for international programs -- especially in a time of economic uncertainty. The IRC is a key partner in this endeavor, not just in calling for a modernized USAID but also in insisting that aid programs are effective and benefit the people we work with everyday.
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